It’s fitting that one out of two musicals of the greatest children’s storytellers toy with the concept of telling a story itself. Once upon a time, the narrator tells us, creating circles within circles, interrupting and starting the story again.
We begin in 1913 Cardiff where young Stevie (Alice Eklund, standing in for Lily Beau) is to spend Christmas with her Lutheran-looking uncles, but a storm transports her to the storybook world of Grimm-dom. As in Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, these fairy tale characters act out their stories until Stevie interrupts them.
Cinderella (Katie Elin-Salt) breaks her glass slipper, Rapunzel (Sarah Workman) gets her hair cut and Sleeping Beauty (Bethzienna Williams) is awakened. Prince Charming (James Ifan), meanwhile, recounts how he was reluctantly transformed from a frog into a prince and dreams of returning to his old bog days.
Writer Hannah McPake’s universe is full of sparkling imagination and delightful rebellion: the characters set off on their own yellow brick road to find the brothers who can fix their broken stories but their quest turns into a struggle for freedom, led by the Snow Queen (also played by McPake), who broke free from the world of Hans Christian Andersen and now wants to free this one.
Directed by Joe Murphy, there’s wonderful comedy and storytelling, but not all of the songs in Lucy Rivers’ score are memorable, although some certainly hit the mark. Kyle Lima is like a young Tom Jones as he sings Big Bad Wolf and Williams blows the roof off with his opening number, Wide Awake.
What keeps this musical from being the best it should be is its pacing. There are also too many repeated choruses, which slow down the story. Some performances are more energetic than others: Williams has a searing voice and stage presence while Ifan, who doubles up on her roles, shines in all of them. McPake gives a slightly hesitant performance as Stevie’s mother, but is better as the Snow Queen.
Eklund, the show’s associate director, has a script in hand and is a capable singer and performer. The Brothers Grimm (Ifan and Lima) when they finally appear as superstar brothers in sequined lederhosen, bring an exuberance that some scenes lack.
The story’s imagination is so clever that if the pacing were changed and the performances honed, it would have all the makings of a classic hit.
• At the Sherman Theatre, Cardiff, until 31 December.